Monday, July 27, 2015

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 2.10: Valar Morghulis

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister
The Lion, Jaime Lannister
The Direwolf, Caetlynn Stark 
Dragons of Qarth: Daenerys Targaryen
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Bears of Qarth: Jorah Mormont
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of Winterfell: Brandon Stark
The Direwolf, Robb Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
Direwolves of Harrenhal: Arya Stark
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Roses of King’s Landing: Margery Tyrell
The Burning Heart, Stannis Baratheon
The Burning Heart, Mellisandre
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae

The episode is in parts. The first runs ten minutes and is in sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is two minutes long; the opening image is of Tyrion’s eye. The second section is six minutes long; the transition is by family, from Tyrion to Tywin Lannister. The third section is two minutes long; the transition is by employment, from Littlefinger to Roslyn. 

The second part is five minutes long, and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by hard cut, from Roslyn to Jaime and Brienne getting out of a boat. It features the death of three unnamed Stark men, two quick, one not. 

The third is two minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by dialogue, from Brienne saying she serves Lady Catelyn to Lady Catelyn. 

The fourth is four minutes long and is set on Dragonstone. The transition is by hard cut, from Robb storming out to the fires in the map room. 

The fifth is seven minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by image, from the fire that Stannis looks into to Theon’s fire. 

The sixth is four minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from the courtyard of Winterfell to Tyrion. 

The seventh is one minute long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by theme, from Shae’s vow to Tyrion to Robb and Talisa’s vows. 

The eighth is two minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by hard cut, from Robb and Talisa to Daenerys, Jorah, and The Dothraki Who Isn’t Dead walking towards the House of the Undying.

The ninth is three minutes long and is set in the Riverlands outside Harrenhal. The transition is by hard cut, from Daenerys within the House of the Undying to an establishing shot of rocks and cliffs. 

The tenth is four minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by family, from Arya to Bran and Rickon Stark. It features the death of Maester Luwin, euthanized by Osha. 

The eleventh is one minute long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by image, from Winterfell burning to Daenerys’s torch. 

The twelfth is two minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by image, from Daenerys walking through a door to Daenerys walking through a door. 

The thirteenth is seconds long and is set at the Wall. The transition is by image, from Daenerys walking towards the camera to Daenerys walking away from the camera and towards the gate at the Wall. 

The fourteenth is three minutes long and is set in the Night Lands. The transition is by image, from Daenerys walking into the snow to Daenerys stumbling towards Khal Drogo’s tent.

The fifteenth is two minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by image, from Daenerys walking out of Drogo’s tent to Daenerys returning to the House of the Undying. It features the death of Pyat Phree, incinerated by dragons. 

The sixteenth is four minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Daenerys to Jon Snow. It features the death of Qhorin Halfhand, impaled by Jon Snow.

The seventeenth is four minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys. 

The eighteenth is two minutes long and is set at the Fist of the First Men, north of the Wall. The transition is from monsters of fire to monsters of ice. The final image is of a massive army of the dead, marching towards a riddle whose answer is chess. 

Analysis

Structurally, it spirals outwards, beginning in King’s Landing, ending at the extremes of the world. With the exception of Daenerys’s disappearance, shoved somewhat ignobly between some Stark scenes, the end simply alternates between Qarth and the Wall, although it scores somewhat differently. The Westerosi politics unfold early on, meanwhile, with King’s Landing effectively squared away in the first scene. In this regard, it is the logical consequence of the season, just as much as “Blackwater” was. Play opened with a political world that magic was scraping at the edges of; it closes with a political world subsumed by magic.

Daenerys’s vision in the House of the Undying serves as the biggest single part of this, a sequence that has her symbolically traverse the world. The image of a snow-covered Iron Throne, and of Daenerys emerging from the Wall, seen, in truth, for the first time this season are both breathtakingly well-done. It is a major departure from the books; one that is cited by book purists of the way in which the show is a lesser thing. It’s true, the book version of this sequence is a dizzying mess of images that allude to large swaths of Westerosi history, support the truth of Jon Snow’s parentage, prefigure the Red Wedding, and, in many cases, don’t even make sense as of yet in the context of the books, and may well never, so dense and allusive is the web of subjective history that Martin has woven. 

In Game of Thrones, meanwhile, it is merely very pretty. But, of course, the connection between Daenerys and the Wall is also considerably weaker in the show. The sort of hyper-detailed historical background that animates the book version of the scene is precisely what television can’t do as well as a medium. In many ways what is more significant is what is added; the farewell between Daenerys and Drogo, a character beat given to two skilled actors who acquit themselves well.

The real problem is that it highlights the most unfortunate thing about the end of the second season, which is that for all the grandeur of the images, all the House of the Undying vision now contains is a restatement of the ice/fire dualism from the first season, as is the structural ending of alternating between Qarth and the land beyond the Wall, and that monster-to-monster final transition. Which in turn casts light on an uncomfortable truth: this basically just ended the same way as the first round of play.

For an awful lot of characters, nothing has changed. Arya is on the loose again; Sansa is a prisoner in King’s Landing; Tyrion is back to being powerless; Daenerys has dragons and is vaguely pointed at Westeros; Robb is doing well but taking risks; Stannis is on Dragonstone without much power. The last particularly grates; for all that “Blackwater” was spectacular, its result turns out to be that nothing of note has changed in King’s Landing all season. Where there are major changes, they are oddly swallowed by the narrative. Jon Snow’s situation has massive implications, and four minutes of screentime. Jaime and Brienne are a delightful double act with great potential for the next season, but they’re placed early in the episode. Arya has a profound change in her trajectory, even as her overall circumstance is essentially the same, but this is necessarily subtle. The sacking of Winterfell is played so heavily for tragedy that the strangeness of it - which is a major mystery with massive implications for the plot - is swallowed. Theon’s gone through a lot, but the fact that his fate is unknown means that, perversely, it’s exactly where it was before he was a major character. A lot has happened; not much has changed. It’s been a high-scoring draw: thrilling, yet slightly unsatisfying. There is overall motion; it’s just, in most regards, unsatisfyingly slow. 

There are many aspects of play that have been refined since 2012. For instance, the choppy and fragmented style of the middle of Season Two is almost entirely abandoned at this point. And indeed, the problem of glacial pacing will get better, at least in comparison with the books, from which the problem is inherited. (Martin’s pathological worldbuilding contributes massively to this; whereas the show, by compositing and eliminating minor characters, keeps its new character to death ratio much closer to even, the books spiral out more and more diffusely.) But unfortunately, it is a problem that is first going to get a good deal worse. 


A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones will be going on indefinite hiatus. I imagine some sort of Game of Thrones coverage will go on for Season Six, but I wouldn’t expect anything before that. The Super Nintendo Project is back on August 3rd with Lemmings.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Episode 7: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

A satisfying and well-constructed end, although as predicted not my favorite of the series. In terms of what the episode does, it is largely in keeping with what has gone before; its only significant thematic addition is the actual Raven King, who, continuing in the weird fiction theme introduced last episode, is a non-speaking character who simply strolls across the landscape of the story, makes a few alterations for reasons that are entirely his own, and exits. It’s striking and bold, a jarringly small and uncanny role for something that’s been built since the series’s start, but in a way that feels deliberate and earned.

Similarly bracing in scope is the opening scene, in which, in a very real sense, England falls to the magicians. The Parliamentary proceedings do a good job of expressing the scale of transformation sweeping across England in the wake of Strange’s unleashing of English magic, although I wonder if the series as a whole wouldn’t have been improved by finding time (and more importantly money) to show some of the Northern uprisings directly instead of reading about them off of telegrams, just to give the story a sense of scale. There’s something odd about seeing the Battle of Waterloo but not the uprisings that destabilize the entire socio-political structure of England.

There’s also some decisions I quibble about in terms of pacing and structuring the ending, most obviously the sudden reappearance of Lascelles during the denouement proper, which feels like a somewhat awkward solution to the problem of figuring out how to give the character a climactic comeuppance whereby he appears much later in the climax than is actually warranted. As loathsome a toad as Lascelles is - and his murder of Drawlight and confrontation with Childermass are both wonderful scenes - having him drop back into the plot at the moment the attempt to summon the Raven King under the name “nameless slave” goes awry and summons Stephen Black instead feels clumsy. (Harness tries to lampshade this by having him then be casually and cruelly dispatched by the Gentleman, and it helps by making the story at least mindful of Lascelle’s profound irrelevance at this point, but it doesn’t solve the problem.)

But despite occasional missteps, there’s a wealth of masterpiece sequences here. The Strange/Norrell confrontation, with Norrell finally, pathetically begging Strange not to laugh at him is a particular highlight, at once surprising and firmly rooted in the characters. Similarly adept is the final scene, with Childermass delivering a near direct address to camera as he explains that Strange and Norrell have ascended to a mythic status within the material landscape of England, having already been revealed not as magicians but as a spell woven by the Raven King.

It’s worth noting that much of this ending is original to Harness; the broad strokes of Norrell and Strange rescuing Arabella but remaining trapped in the Black Tower are all from the book, but there are major changes. Perhaps the biggest change is the destruction of all magical books in England, including the last remaining copy of Strange’s, so that the rewritten (and unreadable) Vinculus is the only book of magic left. This is a massive contrast to the book, where the entire footnote-heavy format is based on the existence of a number of magical works that can be cited and quoted to accomplish worldbuilding. Instead Harness engineers a situation of individual freedom - everybody who wants to be is now a magician, and there’s no rulebook beyond a cryptic and unknowable book that is itself a human actor.

There’s a nice stylistic similarity to Kill the Moon - the use of television and narrative to explore and shift around some vast thematic terrain in a way that, at a crucial moment, implicates the viewer in the thematic landscape. Here the rhetoric of magic that I used in discussing Kill the Moon is explicit, but it’s the same underlying trick and structure, only here the history is vast and sprawling, given room to build up and implicate a huge portion of English history. The size of the thematic edifice is impressive, as is its coherence. (All of which said, I really do adore the explicitness of the main characters being described as “the spell,” which, of course, they in practice are, especially when the overall show is considered as an act of magic to bring about a new era of English magic by aggressively reconceptualizing its history in terms of the subaltern.)


All told, then, a stone cold classic of British fantasy and British television. If this isn’t up for a Hugo (I’ll be nominating it in its entirety in Long Form, personally), it’ll be an absolute crime. 

Ranking
  1. The Black Tower
  2. All the Mirrors of the World
  3. The Education of a Magician
  4. Arabella
  5. Jonathan Strage & Mr. Norrell
  6. How is Lady Pole?
  7. The Friends of English Magic
Also, if you want more top quality Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell analysis, I highly recommend John Reppion (aka Alan Moore's son-in-law) five-part overview of the historical antecedents to the magic within the series. The fifth part, with links to parts 1-4, is here.

Saturday Waffling (July 25, 2015)

The Davison/Baker edits are continuing to come along nicely; I'm firmly in the midst of the extra essays, which are mostly going to end up being Colin Baker extra essays, just because I think that makes for a better book really.

The last Brief Treatise for the foreseeable will go up on Monday, and then "Name of the Doctor" on Tuesday. I've got the first sentence of my Hannibal/True Detective piece, but it's not quite cohering yet. I know the broad strokes of what I want to say, but the shape is still proving elusive.

So, Super Nintendo Project for a bit after that. The next stretch of games, namely "those that came out in 1993," will take us pretty much right up to Doctor Who Season Nine, at which point I'll switch to that.

Unless the Patreon hits $325 by then. If it does, I'll run something alongside S9 reviews. Maybe another stretch of Super Nintendo Project. Maybe something else.

Speaking of which, are there any topics that would get you to back the Patreon if you're not already a backer? With Brief Treatise off the table for a bit, I've very much got a slot for a blog project open, as it were. I'm very much open to input on what to do, and if someone throws something intriguing out, I may well follow up on it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Take the techniques that make it a masterwork and use them for changing the world. (The Last War in Albion Book Two, Part Two: The Nine-Panel Grid, History and Superheroes)

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Watchmen is defined by its intense formalism, and yet no rule within it ever goes entirely unbroken, including its most basic unit of form, the nine-panel grid.

Figure 837: The experimental panel layouts of Swamp Thing are a marked contrast
to the rigidity of Watchmen and its nine-panel grid. (From Saga of the Swamp Thing
#30, 1984)
As a page layout, it is an unusual one, especially for American comics. For one thing, the standard approach in American comics since the emergence of Neal Adams has been to break the strict grid with irregularly shaped panels that allow for dramatic emphasis. On Swamp Thing, for instance, Bissette and Totleben constantly create new layouts that blend trapazoidal panels, panels splayed diagonally across the page, and panels that cut into each other’s space. It’s as basic a technique for Swamp Thing as the nine-panel grid is for Watchmen. Gibbons completely foregoes this, consciously denying himself a tremendous swath of techniques typically used to draw emphasis to specific beats of the story.

Figure 838: Even when not working in a nine-panel
grid, Dave Gibbons's style is tidy and straightforward.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and Tom
Ziuko, from Superman Annual 1985)
For another, the nine-panel grid means that there are a staggering number of panels per page. The first issue of Watchmen averages 7.5 panels per page. In contrast, Moore and Gibbons’s story for the 1985 Superman Annual, “For The Man Who Has Everything,” averages 5.7 panels, nearly two panels per page fewer. Similarly, in Swamp Thing #52, which came out the same month as Watchmen #1, Moore gives Rick Veitch and Alfredo Alcala an average of 4.7 panels per page. But in some ways the more revealing fact is that the highest panel count for a page of “For The Man Who Has Everything” is seven, and the highest for Swamp Thing #52 is six. An average page of Watchmen, in other words, has more panels than the most crowded page of most American comics. Of his past work, only V for Vendetta averages anything close to Watchmen’s dizzying panel count, and this can be explained at least in part by the fact that Warrior had a considerably larger page size than US comics. But even in British comics Moore’s panel count generally remained well below Watchmen’s level: Marvelman tended to be somewhere between six and seven panels per page on average, whereas Moore and Gibbons’s most beloved British collaboration, “Chrono-Cops,” averages six. But mere panel count is in many ways misleading. Out of the first issue’s twenty-six pages, nine are true nine-panel grids. More to the point, out of its 196 panels, 177 are 1/9th of a page or smaller. The standard unit of storytelling in Watchmen, in other words, is in effect the comics equivalent of a miniature - a two inch by three inch rectangle.

Figure 839: The one time in "For The Man Who Has Everything"
that Gibbons violates a panel border. (Written by Alan Moore, art
by Dave Gibbons and Tom Ziuko, from Superman Annual 1985)
Gibbons, of course, is well-suited to these particular challenges. His style is defined by a precise and detailed line, but its cleanliness comes at the expense of a certain degree of dynamism. It’s not just the nine-panel grid that keeps Gibbons from using Adams-esque layouts: it’s simply not a technique Gibbons is terribly invested in. “For The Man Who Has Everything,” for instance, is comprised entirely of rectangular panels, with only one moment in the entire story where an object breaks the border of its panel (an otherwise uninteresting panel of Jor-El brandishing a stick). Similarly, while Gibbons is more than capable of drawing effective action sequences, their strength is generally in their clarity, as opposed to their sense of frenetic motion. Which makes his style a strong fit for the self-consciously dense symbolism of Watchmen, where panel transitions are regularly based around symbolic shifts, such as the myriad of moments in the second issue in which a panel transition covers several years while leaving the characters in essentially the same poses. These transitions require a sense of detail and stillness that Gibbons is perfectly suited to.

And while action sequences are not necessarily Gibbons’s forte, Moore approaches violence in Watchmen so as to further play to Gibbons’s strengths. Where most superhero art focuses on the dynamism of the characters, heavily stylizing their physiques and poses to give them a sense of magnitude and grandeur, Moore and Gibbons make violence in Watchmen a particularly visceral thing. On a basic level, this can often mean little more than Gibbons drawing characters in somewhat static poses as they are punched and kicked, and then simply adding enthusiastic quantities of blood. But it also means taking a smaller scale view of violence, moving it away from laser beams and explosions and towards a more materialist sort of violence, which includes looking at superhero standards from new angles, such as the mention at one point of a police officer shot by Rorschach’s “gas-powered grappling gun” who suffered “a shattered sternum and is still on the hospital’s critical list.” But the most iconic instance of this consciously low-scale violence comes in the first issue, and indeed, in the story’s first act of violence not to be shown in flashback. In the scene, Rorschach walks into a bar full of low level criminals seeking information about Edward Blake’s murder. When none is forthcoming, he walks up to a patron, grabs his wrist and hand, and calmly bends one of his fingers back, breaking it. 

Figure 840: Violence made all the more disturbing by its
understated nature. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons
and John Higgins, from Watchmen #1, 1986)
The act of violence is confined to two panels, framed almost identically, so that the focus is on the small movement of Rorschach’s hand as he bends the man’s finger back, and the look of pain on the criminal’s face. Its impact comes precisely from the complete lack of any exaggeration or stylization. There’s not even a sound effect (another comic book standard forgone by Gibbons), with the weight of the nameless criminal’s agony being conveyed only through his face and Gibbons’s oversized and chaotic lettering of his reaction, a simple “AAAAAA.” The effect is not only to immediately render Rorschach a genuinely intimidating figure, but to fundamentally shift the grammar of violence in superhero comics to focus on brutal impact instead of kinesthetic beauty. But what the overwhelming majority of Moore and Gibbons’s imitators ended up missing was that the scene’s effectiveness depended on the staid, methodical tick of the nine-panel grid.

The nine-panel grid, however, is far from Watchmen’s only defining structural element. The first eleven issues all culminate in short and lightly-illustrated text pieces - six pages in issue #1, four in subsequent issues - that flesh out the comic’s world. These pieces are all presented as artifacts from within Watchmen - internal memos from within Adrian Veidt’s company, documents from Rorschach’s case file, or, as in the first three issues, chapters from Hollis Mason’s autobiography Under the Hood. These text pieces are rarely highlights of Watchmen - indeed, one suspects no shortage of readers have traversed the graphic novel multiple times without actually reading them all. Put simply, most of the pieces’ ostensible authors are not particularly good writers, and Moore captures them, perhaps, a bit too well. Moore is a capable prosesmith, but the pieces status as artifacts of the fictional world means that he is generally writing from the perspectives of people for whom his baroquely imagistic style would be inappropriate. He generally makes a good show of writing slightly unreliable narrators who inadvertently reveal more than they intend, especially when their words are taken against events elsewhere in the comic, but the fact remains that the text pieces are among the weaker links in Watchmen.

Still, they fulfill their purpose, which is to let Moore flesh out the elaborate backstory he invented for the world of Watchmen. The nature and scale of this backstory forms another key element of Watchmen’s overall success and brilliance. It is not just that Watchmen takes place in a bespoke superhero universe, but that it takes place nearly fifty years into the history of that universe. The apocalyptic bent of Watchmen, represented very literally on the book’s back covers, which, over twelve issues, depict a clock ticking ever closer to midnight as blood starts to run down from the top of the page, is not merely the endpoint of the story featuring the core of six characters but the endpoint of an ongoing superhero narrative with, if not as much history as the DC Universe itself, at least a sense of scale equivalent to the DC Universe. Indeed (and unsurprisingly given the publisher) the emergence of costumed heroes within Watchmen’s timeline is explicitly tied to the 1938 release of Action Comics #1, and the Tales of the Black Freighter comic that appears several times within the narrative is revealed to be a DC comic. For all that the consequences of Watchmen were unexpected (if not, strictly speaking, unintended), this, at least, must be acknowledged: its apocalypse was always meant to play out over larger symbolic territory.

Indeed, for all that the work is a product of Moore and Gibbons’s genius and for all the role it played in Moore’s eventual falling out with DC, the truth is that Watchmen needed to come out from DC in order to have anything like the impact it had. This isn’t true merely on the level of sales, although it’s true that there were no other comics publishers in 1986 who might both plausibly publish a book like Watchmen and who could give it anything like the distribution and promotion that DC gave it, but on an altogether more symbolic level. Put simply, it mattered that Moore and Gibbons were conducting an apocalypse of superheroes at the company that had invented the genre, and their apocalypse was deliberately designed to engage with the history of that company. The historical timeline of Watchmen is deliberately set to track with the broad history of superhero comics in America: an initial burst of heroes following the 1938 release of Action Comics, a decline at the end of the 1940s, a moral panic and Congressional hearings in the 1950s, and a second generation of heroes that emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s. (Moore even develops a history of how the comics industry itself is changed by the existence of actual superheroes, with pirate comics emerging as popular alternatives to superhero books.)

More than that, the history of superheroes within Watchmen is consciously intertwined with the history of the world, so that the Cold War paranoia that animates its apocalypse is made to extend intrinsically and inevitably from the existence of superheroes. For instance, the emergence of Doctor Manhattan in the 1960s leads to his deployment in the Vietnam War, which in turn leads to the United States winning that war. His existence is also inexorably tied to the rapidly deteriorating international situation, with the power imbalance he introduces to US/Soviet relations having led to comparatively unchecked US expansionism and an angrier and more resentful USSR that reacts decisively upon Doctor Manhattan’s departure by invading Afghanistan and, subsequently, Pakistan. Beyond that, it’s strongly implied that the Comedian murders Woodward and Bernstein before they can report on Watergate, resulting in Richard Nixon managing to pass a Constitutional amendment allowing him to serve more than two terms, winning reelection in 1976, 80, and 84. 

Figure 841: The Charlton characters as drawn by
Dave Gibbons for an abandoned project.
There is also the non-trivial matter of the specific historical antecedents of the Watchmen characters. Obviously, much has been made of the specific similarities between Watchmen and the superheroes created by Charlton Comics, a line acquired by DC in 1983. But while it is true that Watchmen originates in a pitch Moore and Gibbons made for the Charlton characters, and that, once one knows this, it is a fairly easy exercise to match the six main characters of Watchmen to specific characters created by Charlton, this is at best only a partial account. In many regards what matters more is the fact that Watchmen’s world is comprised of fairly generic heroes. With the exception of Doctor Manhattan, all are without superpowers, and are instead ordinary (except perhaps in the psychological sense) people who wear costumes and fight crime. In this regard Batman, obviously, hangs over them all as both the most commercially successful character in this vein and the historical archetype, especially within DC Comics. But this in turn points at a variety of other heroes: the Punisher and Green Arrow, for instance, or pre-comics pulp heroes like Doc Savage and Green Hornet. More broadly, there are few substantive differences between these sorts of characters and characters where the only fantastical element of their premise is a MacGuffin explaining their extreme physical prowess such as Captain America, or ones like the Sandman who make use of specialist technology. And while Doctor Manhattan does have outright superpowers, his character is in many ways stitched together from bits of other superheroes: the alienness of Superman, the powers of Firestorm, the science-trauma origin of the Hulk, the higher consciousness of Swamp Thing, et cetera. In other words, the cast of Watchmen is like any other aspect of the book: a dense but fundamentally imprecise set of symbols. 

And so the world that is brought to an apocalypse within Watchmen is, in multiple regards, particularly well-suited to the task of serving as an apocalypse for the superhero as a whole. But for all that Moore and Gibbons created an elaborate superhero universe based on the principle of taking a more materially realistic view of the impact superheroes would have on the world, going so far as to think through the comics industry of his fictional world, there is a crucial tangible oversight within Watchmen: it almost completely ignores the way in which superheroes are, historically, generally corporate owned franchises. [continued]

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Comics Reviews (July 22nd, 2015)

From worst to best of what I bought. Which, erm, wasn't much.

Old Man Logan #3

This is increasingly just becoming a case of "old Wolverine wanders plotlessly through a variety of Battleworld realms," which... is actually a genuinely awful premise for a comic, and I'm not sure why Marvel has decided to waste such talented creators on it. Within the confines of this there are some good moments; the scene with Boom Boom is absolutely lovely. But the overall package is astonishingly pointless.

Uncanny X-Men #35

A fun little issue that would have been quite pleasant had this denouement come at the pace Bendis wrote it for, but that is infuriating wheel-spinning at the pace this is actually playing out. I believe we're three months now til the next issue of this? Stupid. In any case, a charming Goldballs-centric issue, and I continue to like Bendis's take on the X-Men, not least because I'm seemingly dropping the line in All-New All-Different Marvel.

Loki: Agent of Asgard #16

This ends up salvaging the week, with one of the most Norse-feeling takes on Norse mythology that Marvel has done. I'm fascinated by the way in which Loki, over the course of this run, has been reconstituted so many times that they're only sort of a singular character anymore, instead becoming, quite literally, a narrative force. With apocalypses all around, and Secret Wars really just being used as an excuse for one, the honing in towards a definitive statement on What Loki Is makes for genuinely interesting reading - I'm eager to see how this resolves next issue, which is more than I can say for a lot of Marvel right now, where I'm increasingly more interested in what's next than what's actually going on now.

Monday, July 20, 2015

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 2.09: Blackwater

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Tywin Lannister
Ships of King’s Landing: Davos Seaworth
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane
Burning Hearts of King’s Landing: Stannis Baratheon
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae

Harrenhal, Pyke, Winterfell, the Wall, and Qarth are all empty. 

The episode is in one part running fifty-one minutes and set in King’s Landing; it is in seventeen sections. The first section runs three minutes; the opening image is of black water and a ship moving across it. The second runs two minutes; the transition is by dialogue, from Davos’s son speaking of his captain to Tyrion, his counterpart in King’s Landing. The third runs two minutes; the transition is by family, from Tyrion to Cersei Lannister. The fourth runs four minutes; the transition is by music, from Cersei to men singing “The Rains of Castamere.” The fifth runs three minutes; the transition is by sound, the bells warning of Stannis’s arrival tolling over both scenes. The sixth runs one minute; the transition is by equivalency, from Tyrion to Davos. The seventh runs three minutes; the transition is by dialogue, from Stannis’s fleet to Bronn talking about ships. The eighth runs two minutes; the transition is by image, from a fire within the Red Keep to fires burning outside. The ninth runs two minutes; the transition is by family, from Tyrion and Joffrey to Cersei. The tenth runs five minutes; the transition is by family, from Cersei to Tyrion and Joffrey. The eleventh runs four minutes; the transition is by family, from Tyrion and Joffrey to Cersei. The twelfth runs three minutes; the transition is by family, from Cersei to Tyrion and Joffrey. The thirteenth runs three minutes; the transition is by family, from Lancel to Cersei. The fourteenth runs seven minutes; the transition is by hard cut, from Cersei to the combat outside. The fifteenth runs four minutes; the transition is by family, from Tyrion to Cersei. The sixteenth runs two minutes; the transition is by image, from the Hound walking out Sansa’s door to Tyrion’s men opening the passage out of the city. The seventeenth runs three minutes; the transition is by family, from Tyrion to Cersei. It features the death of countless people. The final image is of Cersei hugging Tommen as Tywin announces that he has solved a riddle whose answer is chess.

Analysis

As with the first season, the ninth episode proves to be the point of the entire exercise. Once again, it is a masterpiece. And yet the two episodes could not be more different. Baelor may have had one trick that outdid them all, but worked because it was a succession of climaxes that careened towards Ned’s death. This, on the other hand, is an ostentatious set piece. “Baelor” is designed to seal the deal - it shows off all the show’s strengths one by one, then tops them all. “Blackwater” assumes an audience that’s been sold and will trust the show while it does something unusual.

The lynchpin of that trust, as within King’s Landing, is Tyrion. The entire season has been about Tyrion’s sudden ascension to a position of overt power on the board instead of the inadvertent power he wielded in the first season, and about how Stannis presents a growing threat to that power. That was the message of “The North Remembers.” Here is the inevitable payoff. This is inseparable from the paratext; Peter Dinklage’s surprise but largely deserving Emmy win made him the central attraction of the show following the departure of Sean Bean. Their bodies occupy the same structural position, dealt grave and shocking injury. 

Again, the differences are the important part. The beheading of Ned Stark is a demonstration of something that everyone involved in making Game of Thrones would probably call “realism.” Instead of a shocking reversal of fortune when the character is brought to his lowest moment, there is only it going even worse. The injury to Tyrion complicates that in two ways. First, of course, it is injury and not death. Tyrion being cut down on the battlefield would have been an outright travesty. It is simply not possible within the domain of things that Game of Thrones could do. Second, where Ned’s death is a non-reversal of fortune, Tyrion’s injury is a misfortune at what ought be the moment of his greatest triumph: he has successfully orchestrated the defense of King’s Landing. Yes, he requires a bailout from Tywin in the last moment, but the more pertinent accomplishment is, as Varys will subsequently point out, that King’s Landing was still around for Tywin to save. 

There is an inevitable and grim joke underlying this - that Tyrion Lannister’s victory is a Lannister victory. This is, in its own way, as inevitable as Ned’s death. If this is not the sort of game in which Ned is saved, it’s also not the sort of game where just because Tyrion saves King’s Landing he finds his situation improved. He is still the Imp, the hated dwarf son of Tywin Lannister, the hated uncle of the psychotic moron that is the King, et cetera. This never could end well for him. That it ends not just with his subsequent disempowerment but with his physical injury is a clever exclamation point.

Nevertheless, it exposes the shaggy dog at “Blackwater”’s heart. In an episode where the main tactic is “here’s what you’ve been waiting for,” the climax is the exact opposite. It works, and so it’s a good idea, but it’s going to prove to be one of those tricks that works until it doesn’t. In this case, it’s got the specific advantage of Tyrion having a moment of emphatic triumph in the form of the wildfire destroying Stannis’s fleet earlier in the episode. But there’s a larger issue here that’s easy to miss: this isn’t actually a great Tyrion episode. He’s got a very good Varys scene early on, and his “those are brave men knocking at our door; let’s go kill them” speech is marvelous, but in terms of concentrated Tyrion pleasures, this has nothing on “What is Dead May Never Die.” Not, of course, that anyone notices, because the wildfire is so spectacular.

This, of course, is the real secret sauce of “Blackwater.” It’s terribly expensive. In that regard it’s not a shaggy dog at all. The wildfire is the starting gun for an orgy of violence and spectacle unlike anything Game of Thrones or indeed television has seen before. HBO splashed out the cash to do this right. Equally importantly, however, the people orchestrating this actually do it right. Putting Martin on the script defuses the obvious tension with the fan audience by making it so that all the necessary compromises of scale are managed by him. And he obligingly gives a DVD commentary track consisting of almost nothing but wistfully explaining them all. But he’s a good-natured realist about it, which is of course the entire reason the adaptation is happening in the first place, and he’s gracious in identifying the bits added by Benioff and Weiss (notably Cersei’s monologue as she prepares to commit suicide and the Hound/Bronn scene). 

Neil Marshall, on the other hand, is one of the greatest happy accidents in the history of television; famously parachuted in a week before production started after the original director had to drop out for a personal emergency, he does an extraordinary job. It is almost impossible to imagine “Blackwater” without him; the directorial choices and composition of this episode are exquisite. But by Marshall’s admission, much of his success came because of how good the standing production team is. As Marshall points out, he didn’t have to build sets or costumes for “Blackwater,” and he was working with a cast that knew what they were doing. Which meant that Marshall could focus on blowing things up and building artificial heads to drop rocks on. (Although he ended up making some significant changes as well, most notably in having Stannis scale the wall and join the melee in order to contrast him with Joffrey, a decision in contrast to Martin, who had Stannis as a more Napoleonesque commander). 

But equally, the secret that lets Marshall succeed is that he only needs a couple shots of charging cavalry and exploding ships; fully half of the wildfire explosion consists of nothing more than giving actors reaction shots to the carnage while flashing a green light in their face. And the episode’s best moments are generally its quietest, especially the subplot of Cersei and Sansa in Maegor’s Holdfast, a sequence where it finally becomes evident that Cersei is not merely ruthless but is completely barking mad. This, it should be noted, is in material fact the point of the battle; of the six chapters that make it up in A Clash of Kings, half are Sansa chapters: Tyrion’s POV does not enter the story until immediately after the wildfire explosion, which is told from Davos’s perspective. And prior to getting HBO to spring for the money to do the battle in full, indeed, the plan was to have the Maegor’s Holdfast scenes be the whole of proceedings. (One suspects this would not have been a single-location episode in that telling, nor written by Martin.)

The result is genuinely impressive television; something that weaves the soap opera tradition that Game of Thrones in practice hails from with the fantasy tradition A Song of Ice and Fire does, having them operate in parallel in a way that is genuinely unprecedented for the medium. It’s a triumph of a scale that just about justifies all the oddities and aberrations that have marked the second stretch of play up to this point - a coup de grace that makes sense of all the tactics that came before. It is the rare piece of television that not only deserves a cliched sobriquet, but that seems to require one: game-changer.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Episode 6: The Black Tower

FUCKING RAVENS EVERYWHERE
My favorite episode to date, and I suspect it will remain so. I also suspect I’ll end up out of sync with the bulk of other reviews here. Much as I found “Arabella” to be a bit blandly straightforward compared to the (in almost everyone else’s eyes overly) expository and theme-heavy  “All the Mirrors of the World,” I will end up in the minority for my love of “The Black Tower.” In turn, I suspect I’m going to be a bit let down by the denouement, simply because it’s going to revert more towards plot than theme and not provide anything quite like the giddy thrill of this episode’s central moment for me. No matter; for my money, this is comparable to “Kill the Moon” in its genius, and it establishes Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell as a genuine classic of What The BBC Is For. 

It is, for what it’s worth, and I think the answer to this is “very little unless you are the sort of person who is seriously considering openly declaring himself a Peter Harness fan and injecting some of his critical capital into the claim that he’s one of the greatest writers in British television right this second,” not quite as good as Kill the Moon. This is, I think, mainly down to direction. Toby Haynes is excellent, but he is very slightly on the wrong side of a stylistic evolution. You can see it in the conclusion - the Restoration of English Magic itself - which is ever so slightly too naturalist. To my mind, what’s Very Interesting In Prestige Television right now is the the sort of artifice-heavy subjective trickery that people like Nick Hurran and Paul Wilmshurst have been bringing to the style - the sort of thing that’s even more embraced by Hannibal and Mr. Robot right now. And the big “ravens explode everywhere” moment, I can’t help but feel, needed a bit more of the uncanniness that style brings. Haynes broke ground with this televisual style five years ago with “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang,” and those episodes remain classics, but there have been aesthetic developments since that would have been helpful here. 

Anyway, there’s my utterly minor nitpick for the die-hards. Now for the fun bits. 

One of the dualisms central to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been the Enlightenment rationality of Mr. Norrell and the Romanticism of Jonathan Strange. But the actual content of Strange’s Romanticism has not really been explored much. Here that changes with wondrous decisiveness, with an episode that immediately focuses on Strange as a Romantic figure (indeed, he’s, hilariously, someone’s rebound after Lord Byron), foregrounding the act of visionary madness.

Meanwhile, the mythology of the Raven King starts to flesh out in earnest. This began to be alluded to last episode, with its suggestion of the Raven King as a figure of populist uprising, but here it moves center stage as the Raven King’s restoration (entextualized within the body by Vinculus) moves back into the foreground. On the one hand we have Stephen positioned as a figure of destiny by the Raven King. An even remotely attentive viewer at this point sees that he’s positioned to be the actual figure who overthrows the Gentleman, although the particulars of this and how it’s going to intersect with the restoration of English Magic are a matter for the conclusion. All the same, when taken with his monologue about his subaltern status (and the marvelous parallel along the idea of having things “written on your skin” to Vinculus) it becomes a clear statement of allegiance between the Raven King and the disenfranchised. (“All of his old alliances are still in place.”) 

On the other we have the explicit democratization of English magic - the declaration on Strange’s part that everyone who ever wanted to be will be a magician. Which becomes a sort of dialectical synthesis of the two forms of individual subjectivity offered by the Enlightenment/Romantic dualism - the rational subject and the visionary mystic - that moves explicitly from theoretical magic to practical magic. 

This all trucks along merrily, getting its ducks in a row, when, at roughly the two-thirds mark in the episode, we suddenly switch gears. The instigation is, inevitably, the collapse of the house of cards that’s been being built since the end of the first episode, as Jonathan Strange finally figures everything out and confronts the Gentleman. Harness, in terms of plotting has been very clever here; there hasn’t been any large scale magic depicted in the series since the opening minutes of “Arabella” - essentially an episode and a half. This means that the eponymous big magical set piece of this episode has lots of room to breathe.

Which makes it a fantastic place for the sudden swerve into the Weird. Strange does a deal with the Gentleman and gets cursed, as one does, but the nature of his curse is unexpected to say the least: he becomes the center of a moving pillar of whirling darkness that towers above whatever locale he’s in. It’s not that this is particularly against the rules of a show that’s gone to considerable lengths to not have many of them, but it’s a wonderfully out of left field creative decision on par with “the moon’s an egg.” It’s earned and set up; the move from Faerie to the Weird is an easy one. But it’s still a wonderful moment of changing the stakes plot-wise at the exact same time that you change the tone of the story.

But in some ways more impressive is the way in which Strange’s plunge into the Weird echoes back towards Norrell. It was easy to think that Norrell’s behavior has been motivated purely by his desire to hide his hypocrisy over Lady Pole. And it was. But what has been cleverly obscured is the fact that Norrell’s rejection of the Raven King is based out of a genuine fear, of which the fact of his complicity is only a small portion. And so as everybody around him finally sides decisively with him over Strange in their actual dispute about magic, he does not take his own side, instead essentially admitting defeat in the face of what Strange has accomplished. (Lascelles’ blind and ignorant dismissal of the seriousness of it is a clever further damning of him as well.)

And all of this - a social justice-oriented revision of the interplay between the Enlightenment and Romantic eras as Weird Historical Fantasy - is bound up in a vision of what Britain’s heritage is. It’s a story about portals to Faerie, and the buried, secret history of Albion - a patriotic myth. It is a story for the British Isles, built out of a carefully woven braid of its material history and the stories it likes to tell about itself, and one that paints a picture of Britain that is fantastic and real and ancient and new. 

Like I said. This is what the BBC is for.


Ranking
  1. The Black Tower
  2. All the Mirrors of the World
  3. The Education of a Magician
  4. Arabella
  5. How is Lady Pole?
  6. The Friends of English Magic